Against the Charlotte Hornets on March 25, starting center Brook Lopez scored 34 points and collected 10 rebounds, propelling the team to a comeback win and possible play-off push. Lionel Hollins, the man leading the Brooklyn Nets to four wins in fives games relied on Lopez. “Brook carried us,” Hollins said after the win.
In the penultimate month of the regular season Lopez has averaged over 20 points and almost nine rebounds. More recently, in his last five games he produced over 28 points and 9 rebounds per game including two double-double performances. An injury troubled career thus far, filled with foot injuries has not limited Lopez as of late. “I felt complete confidence in my body, in my foot, and especially these last six to eight games, I’ve felt amazingly loose, as good as I’ve felt since coming into the league.”
Lopez gained attention of teammate Deron Williams with his play. “His touch right around the basket is off the charts, so we keep feeding him in the pick and rolls,” Williams said. He continued “He’s a force down there and he’s a force on the boards also. And now he’s starting to make the right plays out of the double-teams. They have to double him because he’s a force down there.”
The games are an aberration for Lopez, but a timely one for the Nets as a whole. He’s currently their best option at center for winning now and leads the team in season averages for points, rebounds and blocks.
Almost exclusively because of the weak Eastern Conference playoff chances remain alive and winning now persists as a priority, but championship hopes fall between slim to none in Brooklyn, for this season, and more to come, due to bad contracts and a lack of draft picks. Considering the future may be the more beneficial option.
“Considering the future” is easy to say for members outside the organization, but an arduous one inside the team. Hollins was signed this past offseason to a four-year deal pending a team option, but that provides no guarantees, which won’t surprise him. The reason for his unemployment was being fired after winning 50 games.
Previous Nets Head Coach Jason Kidd departed after a year in which he and the team finished strong. Pursuing eventual wins rather than presently available ones requires trust from ownership, something Hollins may not be willing to test.
General Manger Billy King finds himself in a more threatening position. More often than not the man organizing the roster, in this case King, owns responsibility whenever the franchise’s better option is focusing on the future. King certainly does after bold and retrospectively bad blockbuster trades for Kevin Garnett, Jason Terry, Paul Pierce, Joe Johnson and Deron Williams to name a few. Surrendering draft picks and salary cap flexibility outweighed these players’ production.
Often, “the beauty of potential” is exaggerated and kills a team’s possibility to win. Teams such as the Philadelphia 76ers and Los Angeles Lakers fell enamoured with the concept and intentionally constructed weak teams, threatening the NBA product and torturing their respective fan bases.
The Nets should not consider anything of the like, not that they have the resources to do so, but developing their few young and promising players must be prioritized.
Among them is Mason Plumlee, who has struggled this month scoring under six points per contest. His effectiveness rebounding hasn’t met standards either, averaging a fraction over five for the month. Plumlee hasn’t slumped coincidentally. Lopez’s improvement has largely affected Plumlee’s play regarding both time and production.
Room for error diminishes for Plumlee when the player occupying the starter’s role produces as well as Lopez has. “He can’t worry about Brook or not playing… He just has to go out there and play,” Hollins said.
Reducing minutes is a comfortable decision for Hollins when awarding them to Lopez, but a difficult transition for Plumlee. “You just have to find a rhythm in the minutes you play, and I have to play better in the minutes I play,” Plumlee said.
Plumlee admits it’s hard to solely focus on playing and not other players. He also believes the competition has a negative affect on his play. “That’s probably why I didn’t play so well [on February 27 against the New Orleans Pelicans], but you have to free your mind to go out there and play aggressive and play your game. You can’t let it affect you.”
Age isn’t what defines Plumlee as promising. He’s 25, only a year young than Lopez who will shortly turn 27, but Plumlee is only in his second year, so far without serious injuries, and Lopez is battling in his sixth year with an All-Star appearance to his name as well as durability concerns.
Lacking the jump shot and skilled post game of Lopez, Plumlee presents his value as a defender and energy player. Sparking a team with energy is often reserved for the bench, but when complemented by defense and rebounding it can evolve into a starter’s role. Both skills that form Lopez’s game are ones that Plumlee could develop, after all the offensive prowess of Lopez was rewarded in the form of an all-star appearance only during his fifth season.
Still on his rookie contract, Plumlee affords a considerably cheaper option. He has not flashed the ability of an elite center, but hypothetically replacing Lopez wouldn’t require that. That replacement and insertion into the starting lineup may come sooner than anticipated after Plumlee’s struggles and Lopez’s success.
Lopez faces a player option this offseason that would account for $16.7 million. Largely avoiding the topic, Lopez has been non-comital about his future, instead focusing on upcoming games.
If he stays, the Nets must find a way to maximize both Plumlee and Lopez. If he leaves, Plumlee would be granted the starting role.
An answer to the problem is playing both Plumlee and Lopez simultaneously, presumably moving Thaddeus Young to small forward, where he started his career, but occupied only in limited stints since arriving in Brooklyn.
Consequentially, Joe Johnson, Markel Brown and Deron Williams, whom all start would have to manage the remaining backcourt position. Two centers disregards the association’s appreciation of “small ball” and obstructs the Nets from doing so. Athletic worries arise from the proposed situation as Plumlee, Lopez or both would have to contest 3-point shooters such as Nikola Mirotić.
Despite the ramifications Lopez enjoys the possibilities of the more traditional line-up. “I’d absolutely love for Mason and I to get more minutes. I’m a huge advocate of it. We just haven’t had that much opportunity playing together. We really don’t know what we have to do covering each others back, two really big players – having a big 4 and myself at the 5. We have to learn to co-exist out there. I think it could work.”
The Nets played the Cleveland Cavaliers on March 27, with Young out due to a left knee strain both Brook Lopez and Mason Plumlee started. During the 106-98 win, Plumlee played 24 minutes, scored two points and grabbed eight rebounds. Lopez continued his impressive run scoring 20 points and collecting nine rebounds.